Edward Gardiner with a defence of the jump scare…
“The Conjuring is a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies.”
I like Mark Kermode. He’s one of the most respected film critics working today because of a fantastic (and rare) combination of insight, humour and honesty, and a genuine love for film, which has propelled him to the top of his profession – not to mention an enviable knowledge of the subject . I’ll listen to anything he says, read anything he writes, watch anything he makes. I respect his opinion whether I agree with it or not; in fact, one of the most enjoyable things about listening to the Wittertainment podcast he does with Simon Mayo every Friday is hearing him wax lyrically about a film I didn’t warm to, or vice versa, because I enjoy weighing up my opinion against someone who always has such valid and coherent reasons to back theirs up. He’s unafraid to be honest; to love something people hate or hate something people love, without coming off as a contrarian.
But that one quote irritates the heck out of me. To be labelled as “not a real horror fan” because I love The Conjuring is really pretty insulting. This is no self-aggrandising piece, but I’d like to point out that I’m a huge fan of horror. Ever since watching The Sixth Sense when I was 12, closely followed by The Exorcist and The Evil Dead (sorry, mum), I’ve been infatuated with it. My love of the genre spans from these inaugurations all the way back to truer classics like The Haunting, Psycho and Nosferatu, then all the way forward to the likes of Paranormal Activity, Insidious, It Follows, and even maligned slasher remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.
Kermode is an avid fan of the genre but has a distaste for what he dubs ‘quiet, quiet, bang’ horror, in reference to the trend for some horror films, typically of the supernatural/haunting inclination, to rely solely on jump scares whereby the scene will remain deathly quiet for a long time until the inevitable BANG! jump scare arrives. I think it first cropped up during the review of Paranormal Activity back in 2009 – a film which is largely silent with several jumpy moments. While Kermode was open-minded enough to admit the merits of the film despite not being won over by it, the stage had been set for the next few years of horror rants – often at the expense of maestro James Wan who Kermode, and demonstrably a large portion of listeners, feel is ruining the genre.
In fact, James Wan is making horror better. And he knows how I feel (shameless fanboy moment):
Sure, perhaps not everybody enjoys that style of movie, but look at the movies he’s making compared to stuff like The Pyramid, Unfriended or The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghost Of Georgia (doesn’t that make it not in Connecticut?). Wan understands horror. More importantly, he loves horror. He uses jump scares, but he uses them effectively; as a way of enhancing a scene rather than falling back on a technique because it’s easy. The witch lurking on the wardrobe in The Conjuring or the man standing behind the crib in Insidious – both jump scares, both terrifying.
Critics (like Kermode) loved The Babadook but only half warmed to Insidious (98% and 66% Rotten Tomato scores respectively). I liked The Babadook well enough, but did it scare me anything like as much as Insidious? Not so much. Of course there’s always an element of subjectivity, but I think the more imposing reason is because The Babadook was a bit weird and unconventional. It’s not exactly what one would expect from a modern horror film; it was kind of creepy but not blatantly scary. More subtextually scary, which seems to be it. It’s almost impossible to make a forthright haunted house movie that critics actually like without there being something weird about it, like being so abstract that it basically forces you to figure out how to be scared by it. That’s why I was so surprised when The Conjuring actually did get some decent reviews – doesn’t it use exactly the same formula as Insidious?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a horror movie being unconventional, of course. Often they can be better for it, and like I said, I enjoyed The Babadook. I also loved It Follows and had plenty of positive things to say about The Witch (which is really unconventional). What bothers me is when people review these films and say things like “thank God there’s no jump scare in sight”, as if using an effective genre trope is some kind of sin. An effective horror movie can be defined as one that stays with you in the following days; the one that keeps you awake at night or gives you nightmares. That’s the kind of horror movie I want. But you also have to remember that an effective horror movie needs to be effective in the moment. You want to be scared while watching it, and that’s where the reviled jump scare can play its part. If used competently, a jump scare can displace your feeling of safety as much as any subtextual fright.
I’m not writing this to explain why every single jump scare is a great thing, because it isn’t. If a film relies on it then it doesn’t work. It’s not scary and it loses potency. The problem is that a lot of crappier films do just that, and essentially give a perfectly valid technique a bad name. A film like The Conjuring uses its share of jump scares, sure, but it offsets them with atmosphere and gradual, creeping chills. Look at the hair-raising ‘hide and clap’ scene for an example. What horror fan, anyway, can say they don’t enjoy those moments leading up to a jump? The excruciating few seconds of tension while you wait for something to happen, knowing at any moment the scare is coming yet you’re powerless to do anything about it. It’s exhilarating.
I don’t expect everyone reading this to agree with me, I just feel it’s important to defend an unfairly chastised technique and subgenre, and more importantly, the people who enjoy those so-called “horror films for people who don’t like horror”. Have your own opinion. Like and dislike what you like. But don’t insult people by pretending what you don’t like isn’t worth anything. The jump scare can absolutely be effective, and films which use them can absolutely be scary. That’s just the way it is.
Edward Gardiner – Follow me on Twitter